Posted on December 10, 2010

In Mexico, a Legal Breakdown Invites Brutal Justice

Nick Miroff and William Booth, Washington Post, Dec. 9, 2010

In this dusty farm town, an hour south of the U.S. border, more than 40 people were abducted–one a week–in the first nine months of the year.

Then, on Sept. 21, the kidnappings stopped.

That was the day a gang of kidnappers with AK-47s burst into Lolo’s seafood restaurant and tried to abduct the 17-year-old cashier. A mob of enraged residents chased down two of the teenage attackers and lynched them in a cotton field on the edge of town.

“We’re not proud of what happened,” said Georgina “Coca” Gonzalez, who helped form an armed citizens’ group after the incident to fight crime and prevent kidnappings. “But we’re united now–the whole town. And we all want justice.”

Across the country, and especially in northern Mexico, the breakdown of the legal system is giving way to a wave of vigilante violence. As Mexicans grow frustrated with the depredations of drug mafias and the corruption and incompetence of authorities, some are meting out punishment the old-fashioned way, taking an eye for eye, or in some cases, an eye for a tooth.

Some of these retributive acts have happened spontaneously, such as the Ascencion “uprising,” as many here have celebrated it. But other killings in the past year appear to have been carried out by shadowy forces who have left bodies along highways or hanging from bridges with handwritten notes that advertise the dead as “extortionists” or “kidnappers.”

Mexico has a long history of rough justice carried out by citizens, but it has traditionally occurred in isolated villages, in the mountains or jungles, often among Mexico’s indigenous peoples.

Today, vigilante groups appear to be at work even in major cities.


‘Social cleansing’

In Ciudad Juarez, the epicenter of violence, murder suspects seem more likely to end up dead than appear before a judge. Several days after gunmen massacred 13 people at a party there in October, two heads were found in plastic bags on the hood of a car with a note warning, “This is what happens to those who kill women and children.”

A group of Mexican senators has called for an investigation into extrajudicial killings in the country, alleging that “death squads” of current and former soldiers and police were to blame for some of the more than 30,000 killings since President Felipe Calderon declared war on the country’s drug cartels four years ago.

According to Sen. Ricardo Monreal, wealthy business families have hired former police and soldiers to guard their interests and protect them from kidnapping and extortion. Some of the paramilitary-style groups work as contract killers for the drug cartels, the senator said; others might work as freelancers for the families of victims, who are seeking revenge or tired of paying extortion. Finally, some may be engaged in a kind of “social cleansing” aimed at low-level gang members, petty criminals and drug addicts.

Gustavo de la Rosa, a top human rights official in Chihuahua, Mexico’s most violent state, said the flood of killings and other crimes in recent years has resulted in the “collapse” of the legal system, leaving frustrated citizens to view raw vengeance as their only recourse.